'Crusoe' washes up on NBC sked

Eyeing classic tales, net orders Brit co-produced series

Watch out, "Lost" and "Survivor": NBC is bringing the original desert island castaway to primetime.

NBC has picked up "Robinson Crusoe," a drama series based on Daniel Defoe's classic novel, with a 13-episode order.

"Crusoe" reportedly came out of an unorthodox brainstorming idea of new NBC chief Ben Silverman, who asked his development team to generate a list of the most engaging stories ever told — ranging from "The Last of the Mohicans" to "Sleeping Beauty." "Crusoe" was at the top of that list. Also high on it and under serious consideration at the network are the tales of David and Goliath and Jekyll and Hyde, sources said.

"Crusoe" will be produced by Universal Media Studios and Power, the leading European producer of high-end TV movies and miniseries. Power said the deal marks the first time in 45 years that a scripted series for a U.S. broadcast network will be produced by a British company.

The budget for the 13-episode series is said to be about $35 million. NBC/UMS' portion is estimated at about $10 million, for which NBC gets domestic rights to "Crusoe."

Power, which will shoulder the rest of the cost, gets international distribution rights.

The deal gives NBC a series for a little more than the price of a high-end drama pilot. (The two-hour "Lost" pilot reportedly cost $10 million-$12 million.)

"It gives us a building block and an opportunity to do year-round programming and take risks with alternative formats," Silverman said.

While "Crusoe" will be "efficiently produced," he said, it still will have the look and production values of a high-end drama.

"Crusoe" follows a new business model that NBC introduced last week with the anthology series "Fear Itself," which was also picked up with a 13-episode order at a reduced license fee. By committing to more episodes upfront and handing international rights to its outside producing partner upfront, NBC gets to do big-budget drama series for fraction of the cost.

While "Fear" is targeted for summer, NBC plans to launch "Crusoe" in-season — this fall or midseason 2009, depending on whether there will be an actors strike.

Strike jitters certainly are a factor in NBC's recent series spree. The network ordered three drama series — "Crusoe," "Fear" and Tom Fontana's "The Philanthropist" — in the past week.

"Crusoe" will be an "adrenaline-charged version" of the 1719 novel with a contemporary feel and voice, including a 21st century take on race relations, but it will be a period drama, taking place in the 17th century when the book is set.

"It's part 'MacGyver,' part contemporary morality tale about race and personal discovery, part comedy and part 'Castaway' meets 'Survivor,' " Silverman said.

Like the novel, NBC's series will center on Crusoe and his relationship with his loyal servant Friday. But in addition to their adventures overcoming marauding militias, hungry cannibals, wild cats, starvation and apocalyptic lightning storms described in the book, the series will introduce additional characters and elements, including a MacGyver-like knack of the lead character for making handy tools and devices out of common items.

"We're bringing 'Robinson Crusoe' to the 21st century using the original character to create something very real and authentic but also something new and different," Power founder and CEO Justin Bodle said.

"Crusoe" will be adapted to series by an American writer, while, in keeping with the main character's British roots, the title role probably will be played by a U.K. actor, with an Aussie also a possibility. Australia is eyed as a shooting location.

Power, whose telefilms and miniseries had aired on PBS and such U.S. cable channels as the Hallmark Channel, had been looking to get in business with commercial U.S. broadcasters. As part of that game plan, the company in May hired veteran NBC Uni International TV exec Chris Philip as president of worldwide sales.

So when Power, whose bread and butter is the four-hour miniseries format, began mulling the idea of "Crusoe" as their first international series franchise, they brought it to the attention of Silverman. Because of his background as a producer and agent deeply rooted in the international marketplace, Silverman knew both Philip and Bodle. He met with them and the deal for the series was quickly put into motion.

Power, which will put about $25 million into "Crusoe," has experience with big-budget productions. Its most recent project, the disaster feature thriller/miniseries "Flood," cost $30 million.

The company has an established network of international buyers. It regularly sells its movies and miniseries to 75-100 TV outlets worldwide.

Power is already in discussion with British broadcasters and is taking the series at MIPCOM next week.

"Crusoe" fits into Silverman's strategy of going for presold, easy-to-market properties. He put strong marketing muscle behind the network's contemporary remake of "Bionic Woman," which emerged as the breakout hit of the season so far. NBC also recently ordered a two-hour movie/backdoor pilot for "Knight Rider," an updated revival of the 1980s series.

"Crusoe" is the first series adaptation of Defoe's tale, often considered the first novel in English, since a 1964 French series that starred Robert Hoffmann.

On the big screen, the tale most recently was revisited in 1997 with Pierce Brosnan as the famous castaway.